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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: Labor Movement Fighting Anti-Asian Racism in All Forms

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of these stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

Anti-Asian racism has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Working people condemn this vile behavior as a stain on our nation. We will continue to fight these injustices.

Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance National President Monica Thammarath (NEA) stated, “It is not right that Asian Americans are afraid to be alone in public, especially our elders who live in poverty and depend on access to community services, and our young people who live in places where there are few community spaces to turn to. We grieve for the elders who have been assaulted in Chinatowns across the nation. We grieve for Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man who was attacked on one of his daily walks in San Francisco. We send our love to Noel Quintana, a 61-year-old Filipino American who was attacked on a Manhattan subway car, and to the 52-year-old Chinese American woman who was attacked outside of a Flushing bakery. We grieve for Christian Hall, a Chinese American teenager who was murdered by the Pennsylvania State Police. We grieve for Angelo Quinto, a 30-year-old Filipino American who was murdered by Antioch, California, police. Our communities are hurting, and we are more agitated than ever to create change.”

“The entire labor movement is appalled by the continued rise in anti-Asian racism across the country. Acts of physical violence, yelling of racial slurs and intimidation tactics used against our Asian American friends, family and communities must be called out and stopped,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (UMWA). “Anti-Asian rhetoric is only hurting our nation more during this pandemic, and we all must stand up and condemn in the strongest terms possible that racism in any form is unacceptable.”

“Racism in any form is wrong. Plain and simple. I have been so incensed to see the attacks on our Asian brothers and sisters that I could just scream,” said Clayola Brown (Workers United), AFL-CIO civil rights director and A. Philip Randolph Institute president. “For those of us of color who have endured systemic racism for 400 years, it is scary to see this unrelenting targeting and denigration happening to another group. The kind of ugliness we’ve seen happening to members of the Asian community as they simply go to the store or gather in a park to visit is disgusting and must be stopped. To watch elderly people come under attack and no one come to their aid shows we still have so much more work to do. Humanity must prevail. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘The time is always right to do what is right.’ We must all take responsibility to make sure that no one is targeted, tormented or harassed because of their ethnicity. Until we learn that lesson, we all pay the price for racism.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on March 8, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell  is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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The Labor Movement Hasn’t Won Anything Yet

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It looks very like­ly that Democ­rats will win con­trol of the Sen­ate. That means that for the first time in more than a decade, the Democ­rats will con­trol both the White House and Con­gress. The labor move­ment will and should view this as the time to col­lect on their hefty invest­ment in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. This also means that the labor unions are in mor­tal dan­ger of squan­der­ing the next two years trans­fixed by devel­op­ments in Wash­ing­ton while the real action pass­es them by.

On this hope­ful morn­ing, we should all take a moment to remem­ber the glo­ri­ous days of 2009, when Oba­ma won the pres­i­den­cy, and Democ­rats won Con­gress, and the labor move­ment won… noth­ing. In the cold light of his­to­ry, the enor­mous finan­cial and logis­ti­cal back­ing that major unions gave to Oba­ma won them only a short term reprieve from bla­tant gov­ern­ment repres­sion rather than any real progress towards a revival of labor pow­er in Amer­i­ca. It did not win them the pas­sage of the Employ­ee Free Choice Act, their top leg­isla­tive pri­or­i­ty. Union den­si­ty in Amer­i­ca was 12.3% in 2009. By 2016, after two Oba­ma terms, it was 10.7%. By 2020, it was 10.3%. (In the mid-1950s, it was 35%. By the ear­ly 1980s, it was 20%.) Under both friend­ly and hos­tile pres­i­den­tial admin­is­tra­tions, union mem­ber­ship has con­tin­ued to decline for decades. Col­lect­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars from union mem­bers and fun­nel­ing it into the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty every four years has done noth­ing to solve the most press­ing prob­lems that unions face: they are slow­ly disappearing. 

And here we are again! Unions backed Biden strong­ly, vow­ing to keep the bit­ter lessons of the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion in mind. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, the Democ­rats who appear to have won in the Geor­gia Sen­ate races, both ben­e­fit­ed from a flood of on-the-ground sup­port from Unite Hereand oth­er unions. The 2021 ana­log to the Oba­ma-era Employ­ee Free Choice Act is the PRO Act, a very fine bill that would roll back the worst parts of America’s anti-work­er labor laws and make it mean­ing­ful­ly eas­i­er to build and sus­tain strong unions. We have won the White house. We have won the House. We have won the Sen­ate. And we have our top pri­or­i­ty bill in hand. 

So will the PRO Act become law? No. It will be fil­i­bus­tered in the Sen­ate. In order to pass it, Democ­rats would have to com­mit to doing away with the fil­i­buster, and Joe Manchin?—?now the key­stone of the Sen­ate?—?has said he will not do that. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­ate vic­to­ry means that Biden will be able to get his judges, and he’ll be able to get his cab­i­net sec­re­taries con­firmed, and as a con­se­quence the reg­u­la­to­ry appa­ra­tus of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment will be more favor­able towards the inter­ests of work­ers than it would oth­er­wise have been. But ulti­mate­ly none of the juici­est reforms of the PRO Act, like elim­i­nat­ing ?“right to work” laws and legal­iz­ing sec­ondary boy­cotts, will come to pass. 

Of course it is good for orga­nized labor that the Democ­rats won. I’m not try­ing to be a down­er. I am try­ing to put the util­i­ty of the nation­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty in its prop­er con­text. For the labor move­ment, most of the invest­ment in Democ­rats amounts to an insur­ance pol­i­cy: We have to back Democ­rats because even if they don’t do any­thing for us, they are not active­ly try­ing to destroy us. Total Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment amounts to noth­ing but a tem­porar­i­ly neu­tral play­ing field for labor. It does not get us any­thing. It just makes con­di­tions some­what more con­ducive to get­ting things for our­selves. That is the part that often gets for­got­ten, as unions sit back and con­grat­u­late them­selves after Elec­tion Day. The myopic focus of the labor estab­lish­ment on nation­al pol­i­tics is like spend­ing all of your mon­ey on home insur­ance and hav­ing noth­ing left over to actu­al­ly build a house. 

Pol­i­tics fol­lows move­ments. Not vice ver­sa. We drag elect­ed offi­cials along after we have made the demand for change so strong it can’t be ignored. The labor move­ment in Amer­i­ca is weak because not enough Amer­i­cans are part of the labor move­ment. You can’t fight cap­i­tal­ism when only ten per­cent of the peo­ple are on your team. The labor move­ment must grow. If it can’t grow with­in the hos­tile forms dic­tat­ed by cur­rent law, it must grow out­side of those forms. 

Union lead­ers can wake up today and bask in the knowl­edge that they got their vic­to­ry. They should also mar­i­nate in the knowl­edge that this vic­to­ry will not buy them a sin­gle new union mem­ber. Polit­i­cal dona­tions are a pro­tec­tion rack­et for unions. On the oth­er hand, mon­ey spent on orga­niz­ing is nev­er wast­ed. If we spend the next two years hyp­no­tized by Con­gress and the PRO Act and get­ting ready for the next midterms, two years will pass, and union den­si­ty will con­tin­ue to decline, and we will be weak­er than we are today. We should instead look out towards the 90% of work­ing peo­ple who do not have a union, and ask: How do we get them one? 

We will be told today that we won in Geor­gia. The state of Geor­gia ranks 47thout of 50 in union den­si­ty. Bare­ly four per­cent of work­ers there are union mem­bers. What has the labor move­ment actu­al­ly won for the peo­ple there? How much will their lives be changed in the next two years?

The elec­tion is over. Fall out of love with pol­i­tics, and fall in love with orga­niz­ing. Please. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 6, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where.


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NATCA’s Disaster Response Committee Raises Funds for Union Relief Efforts

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of these stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

With so many severe storms and wildfires having struck parts of our country over the past several months, unions are stepping up to provide relief for our members and our communities that have been impacted. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) established a fund for disaster relief in 1992, in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in Florida and Louisiana. Following the devastating 2017 hurricane season, NATCA formed its own Disaster Response Committee to manage the union’s Disaster Relief Fund and organize the relief process for NATCA members affected by a disaster. Due to the generosity of its membership, NATCA’s Disaster Relief Fund has continued to grow.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on October 30, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Aaron Gallant is the Communications Director and Political Action Coordinator at AFSCME Council 66


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How Can We Rebuild Working-Class Politics? Let’s Go to “Strike School.”

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Through­out Sep­tem­ber and Octo­ber, thou­sands of activists and union­ists from sev­en­ty coun­tries par­tic­i­pat­ed in the inter­na­tion­al ?“Strike School” orga­niz­ing train­ing led by Jane McAlevey and spon­sored by the Rosa Lux­em­burg Stiftung.

Jacobin?’s Eric Blanc spoke with McAlevey about the key lessons of the course, the rea­sons why this tra­di­tion has been mar­gin­al­ized with­in orga­nized labor, and the ways smart orga­niz­ing meth­ods can help rebuild work­ing-class pol­i­tics and trans­form unions today.

Can you talk about Strike School, who par­tic­i­pat­ed, and what its main pur­pose was?

JM: To be hon­est, we orga­nized Strike School part­ly in response to the increase of talk about strikes and gen­er­al strikes. A lot of peo­ple now are say­ing we need a gen­er­al strike, so it seemed like exact­ly the right time to dig into orga­niz­ing fun­da­men­tals and teach how to build to super­ma­jor­i­ty strikes?—?the kind that we need to stop the Right and turn things around for the work­ing class.

Strike School has turned into an impor­tant space for the past two months?—?it’s real­ly been some­thing to see this blos­som. There were thou­sands of par­tic­i­pants from sev­en­ty coun­tries, and all the train­ings and mate­ri­als are trans­lat­ed into Ara­bic, Span­ish, French, Por­tuguese, Hebrew, and Ger­man. It’s spon­sored by the Rosa Lux­em­burg Stiftung, which is beau­ti­ful?—?to be able to car­ry on Rosa’s name today and to keep the idea of strikes, big strikes, alive.

We designed the course to empha­size the fun­da­men­tals of orga­niz­ing?—?and linked these specif­i­cal­ly to how we devel­op strike-ready unions. But there are also a whole bunch of fan­tas­tic ten­ants’ rights and cli­mate orga­ni­za­tions involved, who are apply­ing these lessons to their work.

I get so many emails that I can’t keep up with, where peo­ple say, ?“I want to learn the stuff you write about.” I decid­ed one thing that I can do for those who can’t read the books?—?which is many peo­ple?—?is to part­ner with the Rosa Lux­em­burg Stiftung to get out there a cou­ple of times a year to teach like crazy. This time, for this Strike School, we required peo­ple to reg­is­ter as groups. Get­ting strike ready is not about indi­vid­u­als?—?it’s about peo­ple who can form orga­ni­za­tions togeth­er, even if they start small.

And if there’s one thing that unites Strike School, beyond its rad­i­cal pol­i­tics cen­tered around bot­tom-up change, it’s a com­mit­ment to build­ing a spe­cif­ic method of orga­niz­ing: struc­ture-based orga­niz­ing. Because it’s not just enough to fight. What our side needs is to fight back and win. And to do that, we need to learn and relearn the fun­da­men­tals of organizing.

One of the big argu­ments that ties togeth­er the spe­cif­ic train­ings taught in Strike School, and that you’ve writ­ten about in books like No Short­cuts, is the dif­fer­ence between ?“orga­niz­ing” and ?“mobi­liz­ing.” Can you spell out that dif­fer­ence and why you think it’s so important?

JM: It’s real­ly urgent that we under­stand this dif­fer­ence, par­tic­u­lar­ly for left­ists and pro­gres­sives. ?“Mobi­liz­ing” means we’re talk­ing to our already engaged base to take action. The act of mobi­liz­ing any­one into an elec­tion or into a strike or a protest by def­i­n­i­tion means you’re talk­ing with the peo­ple who already agree with you.

Mobi­liz­ing is not orga­niz­ing?—?it’s get­ting the folks who already agree with you to get off the couch and do some­thing. The Left spends a lot of time mobilizing.

Don’t get me wrong, we actu­al­ly also have to get bet­ter at mobi­liz­ing, too, by learn­ing to be more sys­tem­at­ic. But before we can have a strike mobi­liza­tion, the deep­er part of Strike School is how to get to the 90 per­cent of work­ers you need to be ready to be mobi­lized for the strike. A strike vote is the ulti­mate test of whether the nec­es­sary orga­niz­ing has been done.

The orga­niz­ing work is much hard­er, and it’s not very well under­stood and not as sexy. In the Unit­ed States, for exam­ple, to make a strike real and effec­tive?—?and to have the pow­er to deliv­er the kinds of demands work­ers are mak­ing?—?you need north of 90 per­cent to walk out.

That’s why what was won by teach­ers in Los Ange­les and Chica­go was so sub­stan­tial. To get to that point is real­ly hard work. And the broad­er and more diverse the work­force, the more com­plex the project of try­ing to build uni­ty and sol­i­dar­i­ty across races, gen­der, immi­gra­tion sta­tus, across shifts, across dif­fer­ent identities.

So the ques­tion ?“How do you move work­ers to a project that they believe they don’t agree with?” is fun­da­men­tal to the ques­tion of build­ing pow­er and get­ting strike ready. Most peo­ple, includ­ing most social­ists, don’t under­stand that we don’t just call for a strike. It’s about build­ing and expand­ing the uni­verse of peo­ple who are with us in this strug­gle for justice.

The cen­tral con­cept of the course is that, for orga­niz­ers, we wake up every morn­ing ask­ing how to engage the peo­ple who don’t agree with us?—?or who think they don’t agree with us. These folks are def­i­nite­ly not part of our social media feeds, and they’re not com­ing to our activist meet­ings, they’re not there.

In Strike School, we do a pow­er analy­sis of what it will take to get to some­thing like a 100 per­cent strike. This means you are tak­ing a lot of time engag­ing with those who don’t want to engage with us and for whom hav­ing some skills in your con­ver­sa­tions is actu­al­ly going to matter.

That’s why it’s so impor­tant to teach the dif­fer­ence between orga­niz­ing and mobi­liz­ing, and to focus on teach­ing the skills required to move the hard­est-to-move peo­ple in order to bring about the kind of sol­i­dar­i­ty and uni­ty required for a suc­cess­ful strike.

If this method of orga­niz­ing is so pow­er­ful, why do you think this tra­di­tion has got­ten lost not only in the Unit­ed States, but in so much of the world?

JM: It’s a good ques­tion, but I’d like to reframe it: I think the tra­di­tion was not ?“lost”?—?I think it was beat­en, jailed, and (depend­ing on the coun­try) mur­dered out of most of the movement.

In the Unit­ed States, you can real­ly look at [the 1947 anti-union leg­is­la­tion] Taft-Hart­ley and McCarthy­ism as a turn­ing point. This was a moment when cap­i­tal­ists under­stood the very real threat of work­ers build­ing class sol­i­dar­i­ty across race and gen­der. It was a peri­od, with the com­plic­i­ty of some trade union lead­ers, where there was a real effort to destroy the tra­di­tions that built the pow­er­ful unions formed in the 1930s.

For those union lead­ers who were will­ful­ly com­plic­it in going along with the purges of rad­i­cals at the time, it showed a real naïveté about the fact that, in the long term, their own unions and the lives of their mem­bers would even­tu­al­ly be destroyed or huge­ly under­mined by these same cap­i­tal­ist forces.

After, with the turn to busi­ness union­ism, many of these labor lead­ers thought work­ers would just stay put, that unions would have insti­tu­tion­al secu­ri­ty for life. That was a rad­i­cal mis­un­der­stand­ing of how pow­er works and how peo­ple work.

The skills we’re pass­ing on in Strike School are skills I learned from extra­or­di­nary men­tors in the real tra­di­tion from the old 1199 [health care work­ers’ union]. They’re skills that were beat­en out of the move­ment and worse. You can see that look­ing across the world: many of the same meth­ods of deep orga­niz­ing cross inter­na­tion­al bor­ders, and that’s why many polit­i­cal lead­ers in all sorts of coun­tries jail and mur­der and do every­thing pos­si­ble to beat the most effec­tive lead­ers out of the move­ment. So the more we can teach these skills today, the better.

What do you think the Left and social­ists can learn from this method of orga­niz­ing for class pol­i­tics more gen­er­al­ly, not only for union organizing?

JM: The meth­ods and the dis­ci­pline of struc­ture-based orga­niz­ing in the work­place apply gen­er­al­ly to build­ing a stronger Left. There’s a lot of those lessons.

The first is foun­da­tion­al: Do you spend most of your day talk­ing to peo­ple who don’t agree with you? If you’re seri­ous about build­ing class pol­i­tics, the answer is yes. That’s the first strate­gic choice.

Are you spend­ing all your time in the units in the hos­pi­tal or the schools in a dis­trict where peo­ple already agree with you and your num­bers are pret­ty good? The answer, if you’re build­ing a strike-ready union, is that you’re focused on the places where there’s real oppo­si­tion and where peo­ple think they don’t agree with you. The same goes for how we build a strong Left.

The sec­ond big les­son is that there’s actu­al­ly a method for how to do this. In the old days, the thing that real­ly turned me off from the orga­nized US left was that every time I would show up at a Left con­fer­ence, I’d be imme­di­ate­ly swarmed by white guys hawk­ing papers in four-point font with their polit­i­cal line. And that’s not going to build a class-based, effec­tive move­ment that’s tack­ling race and gender.

What you have to do is come to appre­ci­ate and under­stand the per­son you’re tak­ing with, and real­ly respect that they may have come to con­clu­sions dif­fer­ent from yours based on a set of social con­di­tions in their life that might be rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent from the organizer’s. That’s one of the things that sep­a­rates an orga­niz­er from an activist: we under­stand our job is to have patience and appre­ci­ate where the per­son we’re engag­ing with is com­ing from, why they might be that way, and how we can actu­al­ly work with that per­son to help them come to the con­clu­sion that they want a dif­fer­ent coun­try, that they want a dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal-eco­nom­ic sys­tem than the one we have.

That type of change does not come from lec­tur­ing peo­ple, from talk­ing at them, or from mak­ing judg­ments about them.

I’ve seen some peo­ple claim?—?and I think it’s unfair?—?that the meth­ods you teach are only rel­e­vant for union lead­ers and staffers, not for trans­form­ing the labor move­ment from the bot­tom up. How do you look at the rela­tion­ship between the meth­ods taught in Strike School and the ques­tion of how social­ists can most effec­tive­ly help build and trans­form the labor movement?

JM: First of all, whether you’re inside the rank and file strate­gi­cal­ly because you took a job there, or whether you’re out­side the rank and file because you mapped the entire nation­al health care indus­try and you under­stand which eight cities can col­lapse the sys­tem?—?both are good ideas in our country.

For me, the ques­tion is whether you under­stand your role as an orga­niz­er as fun­da­men­tal­ly doing rad­i­cal polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion. Are you skilling peo­ple up? And do you start by under­stand­ing that you respect the social con­di­tions that formed and framed dif­fer­ent peo­ple? That’s a respect, and a val­ue, and a method of work that you can do effec­tive­ly posi­tioned inside or outside.

I think it’s great, as you know, for peo­ple to take jobs in strate­gic indus­tries. But I think the over-roman­ti­ciza­tion of that can be dan­ger­ous. Part of why we’re doing Strike School is that there is a skill set to doing the hard­er work. It isn’t rock­et sci­ence, but it is a skill set, whether you’re going into the work­place or whether you’re approach­ing the work­place from the out­side. Win­ning mat­ters?—?and so hav­ing some appre­ci­a­tion of the method and the skill real­ly matters.

That’s why we’re doing Strike School, because peo­ple need to be exposed to the best meth­ods to move a real­ly hard con­ver­sa­tion and why you wake up focus­ing on the hard­est-to-move unit and not on the unit where all the work­ers want to talk to you.

We’re try­ing to stitch togeth­er the talk about a gen­er­al strike and the real­i­ty about how we get there. The same is true for class pol­i­tics more broad­ly. When peo­ple ask me, ?“Why don’t you teach a class on how to trans­form unions?”, my answer is that this is basi­cal­ly the same skill. Because if you can’t first build major­i­ty sup­port for chang­ing your local union, you need to stop call­ing for a gen­er­al strike.

How do you trans­form unions? It’s the same skill. You need to learn how to build major­i­ty and super­ma­jor­i­ty sup­port. That’s the real les­son from Chica­go and Los Ange­les. When you show you can win over a major­i­ty of your cowork­ers to a dif­fer­ent ver­sion of their own trade union, that’s step one.

Every­thing we dis­cussed in Strike School, start­ing with leader iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, how to have suc­cess­ful hard con­ver­sa­tions, under­stand­ing the issues that mat­ter most to each work­er you are engag­ing, to learn­ing how to make and move a major­i­ty peti­tion?—?all that trans­lates into learn­ing how to win. Real­ly good orga­niz­ing is real­ly good organizing.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Eric Blanc is the author of Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics.


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How to Boost Unions’ Power? Sectoral Bargaining.

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sec•tor•al bar•gain•ing

noun

1. a labor pol­i­cy that enables unions to set stan­dards for their whole indus­try, boost­ing their lever­ag­ing power 
“Sectoral bargaining could shift employers from competing based on who can pay their workers the least, to competing based on the quality of their services.” —Charlotte Garden, Professor, Seattle University School of Law

Why can’t unions do “sec­toral bar­gain­ing” now? 

In the­o­ry, they can—and have before. In 1980, for exam­ple, about a tenth of work­ers were cov­ered by mul­ti-employ­er agree­ments that set indus­try-wide stan­dards, espe­cial­ly work­ers in steel, auto, truck­ing, con­struc­tion and mining. 

What hap­pened? An onslaught of dereg­u­la­tion and anti-union attacks reversed those gains. 

Only 11% of work­ers are cov­ered by union con­tracts today, total. (And just 6% of the entire pri­vate sec­tor.) Unions sim­ply lack the pow­er and mem­ber­ship to orga­nize entire sec­tors and indus­tries. Sec­toral or mul­ti-employ­er bar­gain­ing does exist—in heav­i­ly union­ized indus­tries, like hos­pi­tal­i­ty—but, most­ly, unions nego­ti­ate wages and improve con­di­tions at one indi­vid­ual work­site at a time. 

How much of a dif­fer­ence would sec­toral bar­gain­ing make? 

You may have already heard of the “union dif­fer­ence”—that the aver­age union­ized work­er has high­er wages, bet­ter ben­e­fits and safer work­ing con­di­tions than a non-union work­er. There’s also a “sec­toral bar­gain­ing dif­fer­ence” (the phrase just isn’t as catchy). In Euro­pean coun­tries where indus­try-wide bar­gain­ing is rou­tine, union con­tracts cov­er more work­ers and have an even greater impact on decreas­ing eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty while improv­ing work-life bal­ance. Ger­man met­al­work­ers, for exam­ple, won a 28-hour work week in 2018. 

Less inequal­i­ty and more pow­er for work­ers sounds good. How do we get sec­toral bargaining? 

We have a bit of a chick­en-and-egg prob­lem: To build a stronger labor move­ment, we could use bet­ter labor law that favors work­ing peo­ple—pre­vail­ing wage laws, for exam­ple, would help force employ­ers to nego­ti­ate indus­try-wide stan­dards. But to win bet­ter labor law, we could real­ly use a stronger labor movement. 

So the place to start is wher­ev­er you hap­pen to be: Labor needs more union mem­ber­ship. And pret­ty much every­one in labor agrees it needs to be eas­i­er for work­ers to join unions.

The Pro­tect­ing the Right to Orga­nize Act would remove some of the major dif­fi­cul­ties faced by union orga­niz­ers and passed in the House ear­li­er this year. It now waits in the Sen­ate. Like so much else, its chance of becom­ing law any time soon great­ly depends on who wins in Novem­ber. If it does pass, unions can begin the process of rebuild­ing their bar­gain­ing pow­er from the bot­tom up. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: This blog was written by the editors of In These Times as part of their Big Idea series.


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How Unions Can Lay the Ground for the Next Upsurge

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I started in the labor movement in the mid-90s, when the fall in union density from 23 percent of the workforce in 1980 to 15 percent in 1994 had created a crisis at the top. In response, the “New Voices” slate led by the Service Employees’ John Sweeney defeated heir apparent Thomas Donahue in the first contested election in AFL-CIO history.

The incoming team were evangelists for organizing. They argued for applying to the entire labor movement the militant tactics of campaigns like the Service Employees’ (SEIU’s) Justice for Janitors and the organizing methodology popularized by the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute.

The idea that unions needed to organize new shops in order to survive became universally accepted. Several large campaigns were launched; unions hired hundreds of recent college graduates to staff them, and codified a specific methodology for organizing.

Many of these tactics (and certainly their essence) had been around since the dawn of the labor movement, but in the 1990s they were polished, distilled, and disseminated widely among a growing corps of “professional” union organizers.

This detailed and methodical practice—the structured organizing conversation, house visits, hard inoculation, workplace mapping, careful assessments of support with numerical ranking of workers, building large and representative organizing committees—has proven incredibly effective (when properly applied) in uniting workplace majorities to win a union in the face of intense employer opposition.

UNIONS GROW IN SPURTS

It seemed to many (or at least to me) that training more people in good organizing tactics would only lead to positive outcomes for unions. And it did, to a degree. Membership has grown slightly in a few unions with more aggressive organizing programs, particularly in health care.

But we’ve seen no overall growth in union density, the percentage of the labor force that belongs to a union—today just one in 10 workers overall, and in the private sector, 6.2 percent.

The problem is that even great tactics can’t overcome the social, political, and economic forces of capitalism, which combine to make organizing a gigantic challenge. In a free-market system, employers are under intense competitive pressure to resist workers’ demands—there’s no generous “high road” for them to take; they won’t willingly give in to a union drive. And employers are compelled to come together as a class to exert power over the government, passing laws and using the courts to challenge unions on all fronts.

In addition, organizing tactics are labor-intensive. In a model where paid staff do the lion’s share, they are expensive. And they were crafted to do something that labor history shows has rarely if ever been done: grow unions incrementally, outside of an upsurge.

Rather, as shown by authors like Dan Clawson in his 2003 book The Next Upsurge, unions tend to grow in spurts, as part of working-class uprisings that pose a deep challenge to the powers that be.

The upsurges in the private sector from 1934 to 1939, when the CIO organized industry-wide, with sitdowns when necessary, and the AFL tried to catch up, and in the public sector from 1962 to 1972, when a wave of illegal strikes established the right to bargain, were rooted in militant worker action. The system began to lose legitimacy and workers got a sense of their collective power. Similar dynamics played out during the 1897-1904 upsurge in the U.S., 1910-1914 and 1933-1940 in the U.K., in France 1935-1937, in Italy in the early 1970s, in Brazil in 1978-1979, in South Africa 1982-1985, and in Korea in 1987.

During an upsurge, new possibilities emerge: what was inconceivable yesterday is suddenly possible today.

As the system seeks to stabilize in response, reforms become possible that allow unions to grow and consolidate. For a period after the upsurge, union membership may stay constant or even grow. Inevitably, though, at some point post-upsurge, membership begins to decline as employers resume their attacks.

Organizing between upsurges can produce incremental growth for some unions at some points, or at least slow the decline. But it doesn’t lead to substantial increases in overall union density.

SEIU, for example, grew by 183 percent during the 1934-1939 upsurge. In contrast, it grew by around 8 percent from 2009 to 2019 despite spending a large portion of its budget on organizing. The structural challenges facing unions are such that only the big numbers brought in through an upsurge can move density rates by double digits.

WHAT COULD’VE BEEN

What does this mean for our organizing strategy? While many strategists have studied the conditions leading to an upsurge, most would agree that they are difficult to predict and even more difficult to manufacture. However, it’s also true that before and during each upsurge, union militants took specific actions that helped to spark, build, and sustain it.

There are all kinds of moments in history where the right combination of forces could have moved in a way that caused an upsurge, but didn’t. Even in the past 20 years there have been such moments. On March 10, 2006, a half-million immigrants took to the streets of Chicago to protest a proposed anti-immigrant law, shutting down hundreds of workplaces. Soon millions of people across the country flowed into the streets too.

Like most protest movements, these so-called “mega-marches” eventually dissipated (though it took a few years). But what if a network of activists, rooted both in workplaces and in the struggle for immigrants’ rights, had been able to use the momentum of the walkouts to sustain those strikes for economic or political demands?

What if organizers in strategic workplaces throughout the country had started to spread the strike movement to other sections of the working class? What if the march participants had had a map of the logistics chokepoints in Chicago and decided to disrupt commerce? What if insurgent teacher unionists had joined the effort? Who knows what could have happened?

The financial crisis in 2008, Occupy and the mass worker pushback in Wisconsin in 2011, the Red for Ed strike wave in 2018-2019, and the uprisings for Black lives this year all presented similar opportunities. And the people in the streets during those events? Few of them got there because they’d had a structured conversation with an organizer.

The point is that moments like this come and go all the time, historically speaking—but they aren’t sustained and multiplied, because the forces aren’t aligned to make that happen.

SPARK INTO AN INFERNO

Working-class upsurges often happen in the context of deep changes in society as a whole, such as abrupt and widespread economic dislocation, a profound loss of legitimacy by ruling elites, or abnormal political instability. Many of the factors contributing to an upsurge are not under our control, but some are. If we’re ready at these moments, we can turn a dust-up into a strike, one strike into several, one plant occupation into five, into 10. And then maybe that spark turns into an inferno.

You never know when that moment will come. There’s no structure test for an upsurge.

What does being “ready” mean?

While upsurges look different across times and countries, certain common elements increase the possibility that an isolated labor struggle will spark the sort of upsurge where unions grow dramatically. Certain of these elements can be affected by union activists.

1. More strikes: Dramatic growth in unions is almost always linked to a strike spike, both before and during the upsurge.

The 1934-1939 upsurge was kicked off by several large and militant strikes, including by teamsters in Minneapolis, auto workers in Toledo, longshoremen in San Francisco, and textile workers throughout the South. These came after several years of bitter strikes, such as the 1931 miners’ strike throughout Appalachia and the 1933 strike at the Briggs auto parts plant in Detroit.

The public sector organizing wave of the 1970s included hundreds of illegal strikes, such as the postal workers’ national strike in 1970, and the routine defiance of injunctions.

The willingness of at least part of the labor movement to take risks in the form of sustained, militant, and sometimes illegal action appears to be a necessary component in turning a “moment” into an upsurge.

2. Large numbers of workplace leaders ready to move: An upsurge can’t be driven by union staff. You need politically conscious working-class leaders who have experience in militancy (see #1) and a view that the existing system is illegitimate.

We saw this in the 1960s and 1970s, when the civil rights, women’s, and anti-war movements were all challenging the core of the system. Much of this movement organizing was then reflected in the booming public sector as rank-and-file teachers, state employees, and municipal workers built unions.

3. Independence from the mainstream: It’s unlikely that large, established unions will support the type of militant, risky action that characterizes the beginning of an upsurge.

Many union officials simply aren’t willing to run open-ended, majority strikes, outside of rare circumstances. Others don’t want to risk legal sanctions.

So where does organizing capacity come from in an upsurge? Historically, three places: a) the minority of unions willing to take militant action, b) new formations that come together during the upsurge, such as the new CIO industrial unions in the 1930s, and c) people fighting for profound changes in society, such as the civil rights movement of the 1960s, socialists in the 1930s, or anarchists in earlier periods.

Waging more strikes and developing thousands of new workplace militants will take a lot of work, and at times will require exactly the type of sophisticated organizing methods discussed earlier. But it will also require something else: a labor movement with a class-struggle orientation.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

What if the tactics needed to spark or fuel an upsurge aren’t the same as those needed to win a tough private sector union election during a low period in working-class consciousness? If they’re not, how many potential upsurges have passed us by while we were grinding it out in organizing efforts that only resulted in marginal gains?

What if the key to union growth isn’t simply more “smart organizing” but an entirely different strategic approach?

While some of the tactics honed in the 1990s and 2000s had their roots in earlier labor upsurges, they were largely divorced from a class-struggle strategy. A string of valiantly fought but ultimately losing strikes, running from PATCO in 1981 to the Detroit Newspapers in 1995, had convinced many unions that the strike tactic was futile.

So union campaigners often stressed “comprehensive” strategies that focused on developing pressure outside of the workplace: convincing supportive politicians to pressure an employer, media campaigns designed to impact a firm’s brand, or leveraging union pension funds to change a company’s behavior—rather than developing worker organization. If these strategies employed workplace militancy at all, it was often in the service of producing “content” to be used in media campaigns, rather than to actually affect the employer’s operations.

Within a few years, the early energy of the New Voices victory ran headfirst into the realities of business unionism. Affiliates were interested in growing their numbers, but less interested in taking risks. The most ardent apostles of organizing were marginalized and eventually cast aside, as the whole project devolved into meaningless goal-setting. The AFL-CIO announced a goal of 1,000,000 new members per year starting in 2000, a number that proved well beyond its reach.

The push to organize in the 1990s-2000s never seriously challenged the post-World War II status quo adhered to by most labor leaders, which was cemented by the purges of the left-leaning CIO unions in 1949-1950. Unions improved in other areas: race, gender, even foreign policy, but the core goal to rebuild the ranks of labor ultimately washed up on the rocks of business unionism.

Outside of the few unions with left histories, few in the labor movement at that time spoke of alternatives to capitalism. The Democratic Socialists of America, now at 70,000 members, was then a small organization with strong ties to mainstream labor leaders, and Bernie Sanders was not a name on the national scene.

Unions must do what’s necessary to survive. But we need to be doing a lot more to lay the groundwork for turning the next moment into an upsurge.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on October 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mark Meinster is an international representative with the United Electrical Workers (UE).


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National Hispanic Heritage Month Profiles: Linda Chavez-Thompson

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Throughout National Hispanic Heritage Month, the AFL-CIO will be profiling labor leaders and activists to spotlight the diverse contributions Hispanics and Latinos have made to our movement. Today’s profile features Linda Chavez-Thompson.

A second-generation American of Mexican descent, Chavez-Thompson grew up in Lubbock, Texas. An oft-told anecdote from her childhood told the story of a young Chavez-Thompson convincing her father that her mother should stay home and care for the household rather than working in the fields. She and her siblings threatened to walk off the job in support of her mother. Her father agreed and Chavez-Thompson got her first organizing victory.

In 1967, she started working as a secretary at the Laborers (LIUNA) local in Lubbock. As the only bilingual staff member, she soon became the union representative for Spanish-speaking LIUNA members. Before long, she was drafting grievances for workers and representing them in administrative proceedings.

Later, she moved to San Antonio and began working with AFSCME. In 1986, she began serving as a national vice president for the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement. Her accomplishments and hard work helped her become an international vice president of AFSCME in 1988, and in 1993, she was elected to serve as a vice president on the AFL-CIO Executive Council. In 1995, she won her election to become the federation’s first elected executive vice president. She was the first person of color to hold one of the AFL-CIO’s top three positions.

During her time as an AFL-CIO officer, Chavez-Thompson focused heavily on recruitment, particularly trying to convince more women and people of color to join unions. She also focused on teaching the importance of unions to young people. Even more successful were her efforts to partner with community groups in recruiting members and fighting back against anti-union efforts. She represented the federation and working people in a variety of organizations, including the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, the United Way of America and the Democratic National Committee. She also was elected president of the Inter-American Regional Organization of Workers, a part of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

Chavez-Thompson retired from the AFL-CIO in 2007.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on October 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth  is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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National Hispanic Heritage Month Profiles: Henry L. ‘Hank’ Lacayo

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Throughout National Hispanic Heritage Month, the AFL-CIO will be profiling labor leaders and activists to spotlight the diverse contributions Hispanics and Latinos have made to our movement. Today’s profile features Henry L. “Hank” Lacayo.

A longtime staple of labor, political and academic circles in California, Henry L. “Hank” Lacayo was a force from his beginnings in the labor movement in the 1950s all the way up to his passing in 2017. He was born in Los Angeles in 1931 but moved to Mexico when he was young. He returned to California for high school. Upon graduating, he joined the Air Force. After his military service ended, Lacayo went to work at North American Aviation (later Rockwell International) in 1953. Within a few years, he not only became involved in UAW Local 887, he quickly rose to a full-time employee of the local and served as editor of its newspaper.

UAW President Walter P. Reuther encouraged Lacayo to continue his labor activism, and in 1962, he was elected president of Local 887, a position he held for 10 years. He represented more than 30,000 working people at Rockwell, both as union president and chief national negotiator for UAW-Rockwell contracts. His hard work led to an assistant director position for the UAW Western Region, covering nine states, along with serving as the region’s political director.

In 1974, he moved to Detroit to work at UAW’s national headquarters. He served as an administrative assistant to three UAW presidents and was appointed national director of the political and legislative department and later national director of the public relations and publications departments. He retired from the UAW in 1986 but continued in public life.

He created H.L. & Associates, a consulting firm representing clients in labor and management, government, community relations, senior citizen advocacy and international affairs. He actively participated in the California State University Channel Islands (CSUCI) institute that bears his name, the Henry L. “Hank” Lacayo Institute for Workforce & Community Studies. He also advised presidential administrations, from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama. He devoted time to civic duties, including strengthening the Ventura County Community Foundation and establishing the Destino Hispanic Legacy Fund that provides scholarships and other funding to the Latino community. Lacayo received an honorary doctorate from CSUCI and was inducted into the Pacific Coast Business Times Hall of Fame in 2012.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on October 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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How Unions Can Bridge the Gap Between Climate and Labor Movements

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While U.S. union den­si­ty hit an all-time low in 2019, the non­prof­it sec­tor appears to be one area where work­ers are union­iz­ing. The Non­prof­it Pro­fes­sion­al Employ­ees Union (NPEU) brought sev­en new work­places into their union dur­ing a 16-day peri­od in April, includ­ing the envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion Friends of the Earth. And while there is no offi­cial data on non­prof­it unions yet (many of them are fair­ly new), cli­mate jus­tice orga­ni­za­tions are some of the many work­places that have scram­bled to union­ize both pri­or to and dur­ing the pan­dem­ic for the same rea­sons as oth­er work­ers: pay, ben­e­fits and job security. 

Cli­mate activists have often been denounced by trade union­ists who believe they are out to destroy work­ers’ well-pay­ing jobs. There’s an old joke that goes, “Are you an envi­ron­men­tal­ist, or do you work for a liv­ing?” But what hap­pens to the often fraught rela­tion­ship between unions and envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions when green staffers become union mem­bers too?

Unions’ pri­ma­ry pur­pose is to give work­ers the abil­i­ty to col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain around work­ing con­di­tions—so it’s not hard to under­stand why many work­ers would want to be union mem­bers. In fact, labor unions cur­rent­ly have a 65% approval rat­ing. As the econ­o­my is in sham­bles, labor’s sup­port has been steadi­ly increas­ing, per­haps because mil­lions have been laid off, many of whom lost their health insur­ance and received no sev­er­ance. Non­prof­its, which can be financed through a mix of fed­er­al and state fund­ing, pri­vate grants and indi­vid­ual dona­tions, are also in a Covid-induced pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion. Work­ers who may have felt that their jobs were pre­vi­ous­ly secure thanks to an air of pres­tige have seen col­leagues fur­loughed or laid off—or have wit­nessed lead­er­ship make big changes in their orga­ni­za­tions with­out involv­ing staff. 

Char­lie Jiang, a cli­mate cam­paign­er at Green­peace USA, an envi­ron­men­tal non­prof­it, told In These Times that staff there “have been orga­niz­ing for quite some time, and the pan­dem­ic strength­ened our resolve. We’re fight­ing for more clear and con­sis­tent poli­cies and more orga­ni­za­tion­al trans­paren­cy.” The Green­peace USA Work­ers Union, affil­i­at­ed with Pro­gres­sive Work­ers Union (PWU), was vol­un­tar­i­ly rec­og­nized in August. Jiang said that union mem­bers “are look­ing ahead to meet­ing man­age­ment with good faith at the bar­gain­ing table… We formed a union to fight for fair and bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions, and for a cul­ture root­ed in justice.”

Unions do far more than allow work­ers to col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain. They give peo­ple the abil­i­ty to prac­tice democ­ra­cy in the work­place, they have the pow­er to change our polit­i­cal sys­tem, and they chal­lenge cor­po­rate prof­it and pow­er—mak­ing them poten­tial allies for envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions that do the same. Groups like Green­peace, the Sier­ra Club and 350.org often fight big cor­po­ra­tions over their dan­ger­ous dis­pos­al of chem­i­cal waste, fos­sil fuel emis­sions, fac­to­ry farm­ing and more. Work­ers for these cor­po­ra­tions are the ones who han­dle tox­ic waste, breathe dirty air and process chick­en at poul­try plants. 

Envi­ron­men­tal groups and work­er orga­ni­za­tions are aligned on many issues, and some do work close­ly togeth­er. Accord­ing to Rebec­ca Wolf, a senior orga­niz­er on the fac­to­ry farm team at Food and Water Watch and a mem­ber of NPEU, “Our true focus is cor­po­rate con­trol. Union­iz­ing work­ers inher­ent­ly beats back against cor­po­rate con­trol and con­trol of the food sys­tem. I see envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions all the time in cor­po­rate part­ner­ships, and we have a hard line against that.” 

While unions are fund­ed only by mem­bers’ dues mon­ey, many envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions take mon­ey from cor­po­rate donors—some of which face off against unions in their own work­places. This dynam­ic can cre­ate ten­sion between staff and lead­er­ship at envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions, which may have dif­fer­ent priorities.

Elon Musk, bil­lion­aire CEO of Tes­la, anony­mous­ly donat­ed over $6 mil­lion to the Sier­ra Club. But in the sum­mer of 2018, after com­ing under fire for a $40,000 dona­tion to a Repub­li­can-allied group, Musk asked Sier­ra Club exec­u­tive direc­tor Michael Brune for pub­lic sup­port. A stew­ard at PWU who asked to remain anony­mous for fear of retal­i­a­tion told In These Times that “PWU kicked that tough dis­cus­sion off. [We] help them stay ground­ed on work­er issues.” While Brune ini­tial­ly shared words of sup­port for Musk on his per­son­al Twit­ter account, lat­er that year, the Sier­ra Club released a state­ment in sup­port of work­ers orga­niz­ing at Tes­la—some­thing union mem­bers believe can be attrib­uted, at least in part, to the union. The anony­mous stew­ard told In These Times, “It’s impor­tant for unions that rep­re­sent work­ers at pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions to hold those orga­ni­za­tions account­able.” With­out a union, it may have been more dif­fi­cult for Sier­ra Club staff to push back against lead­ers and ensure that they pub­licly sup­port­ed Tes­la work­ers instead of their CEO, that stew­ard underscores. 

And while unions are able to win impres­sive gains around wages, ben­e­fits and a voice at work, their true pow­er lies in their abil­i­ty to shut down the econ­o­my if nec­es­sary. On the whole, work­ers at non­prof­its and oth­er pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions are not nec­es­sar­i­ly in a strate­gic posi­tion to exert lever­age to secure the biggest wins for the cli­mate—their going on strike would not have a sig­nif­i­cant impact on the broad­er econ­o­my. Work­ers in logis­tics, health­care and edu­ca­tion have far more pow­er to throw a wrench in how our econ­o­my and soci­ety func­tions. And build­ing trades work­ers, who are like­ly to have more work if leg­is­la­tion like the Green New Deal is passed, could be very influ­en­tial in cli­mate pol­i­cy. Their unions are large and pow­er­ful, and their mem­bers are con­struc­tion work­ers and elec­tri­cians, whose work will be direct­ly impact­ed by both cli­mate change and cli­mate leg­is­la­tion. While build­ing trades work­ers tend to be more con­ser­v­a­tive, the poten­tial for more work and larg­er mem­ber­ship rolls could make them the decid­ing fac­tor in the pas­sage of a Green New Deal.

But envi­ron­men­tal staffers’ iden­ti­ty with the broad­er labor move­ment and the sol­i­dar­i­ty that can be strate­gi­cal­ly expressed—such as in the case of the Sier­ra Club and Tes­la work­ers orga­niz­ing—could forge more ties between the work­ers’ move­ment and the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment as more of these work­ers orga­nize at their work­places. It’s also unde­ni­able that the expe­ri­ence of act­ing col­lec­tive­ly with cowork­ers can deep­en polit­i­cal con­scious­ness, no mat­ter one’s work­place or pri­or polit­i­cal commitments.

Wolf, who was on her union’s orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee, told In These Times that “even though we work to make people’s lives bet­ter every day at work, col­lec­tive action is the expe­ri­ence you need to tru­ly under­stand pow­er-build­ing. Form­ing a union takes all the messy and good bits of expe­ri­ence, val­ues, and polit­i­cal con­scious­ness and brings them togeth­er in a patch­work that moves every­one along.”

But a fac­tor that may dimin­ish the influ­ence of these envi­ron­men­tal staff unions is the unions they are tied to. NPEU is affil­i­at­ed with the Inter­na­tion­al Fed­er­a­tion of Pro­fes­sion­al and Tech­ni­cal Engi­neers (IFPTE), which is a mem­ber of the AFL-CIO, the largest labor fed­er­a­tion in the coun­try. In con­trast, NPEU is a fair­ly small union, with “rough­ly 250 to 300 dues-pay­ing mem­bers, about 500 work­ing on their first con­tract, and hun­dreds more that are in the process of orga­niz­ing,” accord­ing to Katie Bar­rows, vice pres­i­dent of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the union.

In con­trast, PWU, which also orga­nizes envi­ron­men­tal non­prof­its, is an inde­pen­dent union, which means it’s not affil­i­at­ed with any oth­er union or any labor fed­er­a­tion. (PWU’s bar­gain­ing units include staffers at Sier­ra Club, 350.org, Green­peace USA and the Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists.) Accord­ing to the anony­mous Sier­ra Club stew­ard, this inde­pen­dence from the AFL-CIO has actu­al­ly helped the union: PWU is free to run its own pro­gram, which focus­es on anti-racism and social jus­tice. He told In These Times that “the mem­bers of PWU are first-time union mem­bers. They nev­er knew what was pos­si­ble in a union, so there are no lim­i­ta­tions. Our pow­er is in the involve­ment of our mem­bers and their creativity.”

How­ev­er, there are ben­e­fits to being part of a larg­er fed­er­a­tion. Only AFL-CIO affil­i­ates are able to shape the federation’s strat­e­gy and elect its lead­ers, which means that PWU won’t have a say in whether the AFL-CIO ever sup­ports the Green New Deal. Bar­rows believes that “if envi­ron­men­tal pro­fes­sion­als orga­nize, they’ll be a grow­ing part of the labor move­ment, and they’ll have a voice in deci­sions, espe­cial­ly if they’re in the AFL. Hav­ing envi­ron­men­tal work­ers orga­nize will be help­ful to bridg­ing that gap, and to unit­ing labor and envi­ron­men­tal groups.”

While envi­ron­men­tal staffers have formed unions for the same rea­sons most work­ers do, their unions may be a tool for some­thing greater. The anony­mous stew­ard told In These Times, “Our mem­bers are at the inter­sec­tion of labor and envi­ron­men­tal work. They work on behalf of envi­ron­men­tal caus­es, but they’re work­ers as well. They’re try­ing to weave their beliefs about the impor­tance of work­ers into cli­mate leg­is­la­tion and con­ver­sa­tions with politi­cians and union lead­ers.” The stew­ard point­ed to a pro-union video that PWU mem­bers made in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Sier­ra Club about the 2018 Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court deci­sion, which made it ille­gal for pub­lic sec­tor unions to col­lect fees from non-mem­bers. He also told In These Times that the Sier­ra Club and union also worked togeth­er to release a state­ment about the deci­sion, which quotes exec­u­tive direc­tor Brune as say­ing, “Today’s deci­sion does the bid­ding of the very same cor­po­ra­tions that have pol­lut­ed our com­mu­ni­ties, but we will march on.” 

While it is unde­ni­able that the rift between labor and envi­ron­men­tal orga­niz­ing runs deep, the staff at cli­mate orga­ni­za­tions join­ing the ranks of the labor move­ment could help bridge the divide between these two crit­i­cal move­ments. As Wolf at Food and Water Watch told In These Times, “We can always be doing bet­ter, and while greens in gen­er­al are doing bet­ter, we need to be much more pub­lic about our con­nec­tion to labor, and a broad­er con­nec­tion to and with all social movements.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.


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What’s at Stake for the Labor Movement on Election Day? Everything.

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Amer­i­ca is in cri­sis. There can be no doubt about that. All of our imme­di­ate crises—the pan­dem­ic and the unem­ploy­ment and the eco­nom­ic col­lapse and the death spi­ral of var­i­ous pub­lic insti­tu­tions—have lent the upcom­ing pres­i­den­tial elec­tion an air of emer­gency. For work­ing peo­ple in Amer­i­ca, though, the emer­gency is noth­ing new at all. What is at stake for labor in this elec­tion is every­thing. Noth­ing, there­fore, has changed. 

Don­ald Trump and the coro­n­avirus, the two fac­tors infus­ing this elec­tion with urgency, are of recent vin­tage. But the cri­sis for work­ing Amer­i­cans has been grow­ing worse for at least four decades. Since the Rea­gan era, eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty has been ris­ing, union pow­er has been declin­ing, and glob­al cap­i­tal­ism has been widen­ing the chasm between the rich and every­one else. 

Orga­nized labor has been fight­ing a los­ing—and some­times inept­ly fought—bat­tle against these trends in every elec­tion since 1980. The once-in-a-cen­tu­ry cat­a­stro­phe sur­round­ing the 2020 elec­tion may be what it needs to final­ly reverse two gen­er­a­tions of dis­re­spect and defeat. 

Labor unions, which rep­re­sent work­ers in a work­place, have always includ­ed peo­ple of all polit­i­cal stripes. The labor move­ment—the broad­er uni­verse of groups pur­su­ing the inter­ests of work­ing peo­ple—will con­tin­ue to lean left, in the direc­tion that val­ues labor over cap­i­tal. (See­ing police unions endorse Trump, whose admin­is­tra­tion is deter­mined to crush labor rights, is an exam­ple of the fact that indi­vid­ual unions and their mem­bers can act in self-inter­est­ed ways that go against the labor move­ment as a whole.) 

For rough­ly the past half cen­tu­ry, union house­holds have tend­ed to vote Demo­c­ra­t­ic by about a 60–40 mar­gin, but that mar­gin has fluc­tu­at­ed. In 1980, Ronald Rea­gan nar­rowed the gap to only a few points. Barack Oba­ma took the union vote by 34 points in 2012, but in 2016, that gap shrank by half. Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Joe Biden, tout­ing his Oba­ma con­nec­tions and fac­ing an out­right incom­pe­tent racist, will like­ly expand that mar­gin again. 

Since Con­gress passed the Taft-Hart­ley Act in 1947, unions have been oper­at­ing in the frame­work of a set of labor laws designed to rob them of pow­er. The state of those laws today is abysmal. The right to strike is restrict­ed, and com­pa­nies have been able to clas­si­fy large swaths of their work­ers as “inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors,” who lack the right to union­ize. More than half the states in the coun­try have passed “right to work” laws, which give work­ers the abil­i­ty to opt out of pay­ing union dues, mak­ing it extreme­ly dif­fi­cult for unions to orga­nize and main­tain mem­ber­ship. The 2018 Supreme Court deci­sion in the Janus v. AFSCME case made the entire pub­lic sec­tor “right to work” as well, which is sure to eat into that last bas­tion of strong union den­si­ty. The unful­filled desire to achieve some sem­blance of labor law reform has been the pri­ma­ry rea­son that unions in Amer­i­ca have poured mon­ey into the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty for decades, despite get­ting decid­ed­ly mod­est leg­isla­tive wins in return. 
“It’s critical that in the new administration, labor doesn’t just get siloed: ‘What’s the thing we can do to make the unions happy’ It’s got to be an approach to looking across everything, especially in light of the economic situation.” —Sharon Block, former Labor Department official in the Obama administration

Ear­li­er this year, Sharon Block, a for­mer Labor Depart­ment offi­cial in the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion who now heads the Labor and Work­life Pro­gram at Har­vard, and labor expert and Har­vard pro­fes­sor Ben­jamin Sachs spear­head­ed the assem­bly of the “Clean Slate for Work­er Pow­er” agen­da—some­thing of a union-friend­ly labor law plat­form for Democ­rats in exile dur­ing the Trump years. That agen­da is a fair sum­ma­tion of the labor movement’s wish list. It calls for a swath of reforms that make it eas­i­er for all work­ers to orga­nize and exer­cise pow­er. Its pil­lars include sec­toral bar­gain­ing, which would allow entire indus­tries to nego­ti­ate con­tracts at once; a much broad­er right to strike; work­er rep­re­sen­ta­tives on cor­po­rate boards; stream­lined union elec­tions; more labor rights for inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors and oth­er gig work­ers; the end of statewide “right to work” laws; and stronger enforce­ment of labor stan­dards. Biden’s own labor plat­form, while not quite as rad­i­cal—it con­spic­u­ous­ly does not include sec­toral bar­gain­ing—does include the major­i­ty of the Clean Slate agen­da. Biden’s plat­form also says there will be a “cab­i­net-lev­el work­ing group” of union rep­re­sen­ta­tives, which could pre­sum­ably push his plat­form even fur­ther left. Though Biden was among the most cen­trist of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry can­di­dates, the party’s cen­ter has moved so much in the past four years that he has the most left­ist labor plat­form of any nom­i­nee since the New Deal. 

While Biden is regard­ed by many as very pro-union, his­to­ry has taught the labor move­ment that its great­est chal­lenge will be get­ting him to actu­al­ly pri­or­i­tize labor if he assumes pow­er. “I had the priv­i­lege of see­ing Joe Biden in action. When he walked into a room where we were dis­cussing pol­i­cy, we knew that the inter­ests of work­ers, their col­lec­tive pow­er, and the labor move­ment was going to be on the table,” Block says. But, she warns, “It’s crit­i­cal that in the new admin­is­tra­tion, labor doesn’t just get siloed: ‘What’s the thing we can do to make the unions hap­py’ It’s got to be an approach to look­ing across every­thing, espe­cial­ly in light of the eco­nom­ic situation.”

In oth­er words, the new admin­is­tra­tion must treat orga­nized labor not as a spe­cial inter­est but as the key to chang­ing our increas­ing­ly two-tiered econ­o­my. That point is key to under­stand­ing the divide between the part of the labor move­ment that sup­port­ed left-wing can­di­dates like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Eliz­a­beth War­ren (D-Mass.), and those that sup­port­ed Biden. While Sanders’ back­ers will speak of his fanat­i­cal moral devo­tion to pro-work­ing class pol­i­cy, Biden’s allies will speak of the per­son­al rela­tion­ship they have with him. It is the divide between those who see unions more as part of a greater effort to improve con­di­tions for all work­ers, and those who see them more as a prac­ti­cal tool for mem­bers. “Joe Biden had an open door pol­i­cy. That was the biggest thing. That was the crux of the rela­tion­ship,” says a spokesper­son for the Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Fire Fight­ers, the first big union to endorse Biden when he entered the 2020 race. “With Joe Biden at the White House, our voice is heard. We get pri­or­i­ty access.”

This trans­ac­tion­al, loy­al­ty-cen­tric approach is unsur­pris­ing for a career politi­cian like Biden, but it can leave out labor lead­ers who don’t have such a long his­to­ry of back­ing him. Most major unions did not endorse in the 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry, pre­fer­ring to focus on back­ing who­ev­er became the nom­i­nee to oppose Trump. And Biden—though he has many union allies—is not a cru­sad­er, but a politi­cian with decades of strong cor­po­rate back­ing, lead­ing many in labor to won­der how much he real­ly means what his plat­form says. The Biden cam­paign tried to mit­i­gate that wor­ry by includ­ing mul­ti­ple pro­gres­sive union lead­ers in the Biden-Sanders “Uni­ty Task Force,” which was explic­it­ly set up to uni­fy the left and cen­trist wings of the par­ty, in part by get­ting pro­gres­sive poli­cies into the Demo­c­ra­t­ic plat­form. That task force prod­ded Biden mod­est­ly to the left but not so far as to endorse core pro­gres­sive ideas like Medicare for All. The unions clos­est to Biden, par­tic­u­lar­ly the fire­fight­ers, are opposed to Medicare for All because they want to keep the health­care plans they nego­ti­at­ed for themselves.

The biggest labor unions often have strong pro­gres­sive fac­tions but most­ly plant them­selves firm­ly in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s main­stream. In fact, four major union lead­ers who serve on the plat­form com­mit­tee of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee vot­ed against includ­ing Medicare for All in the party’s plat­form. One was Ran­di Wein­garten, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers, who also served on the Biden-Sanders Uni­ty Task Force. She says the DNC plat­form vote was a result of a pri­or agree­ment among those on the Uni­ty Task Force to vote for its rec­om­men­da­tions, in the way you might vote for a union con­tract that was imper­fect but the best you could get.

The wretched­ness of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has pushed unions to view the elec­tion as a mat­ter of sur­vival. “What Trump has done with his abysmal han­dling of Covid, and his even worse han­dling of racism, is to have sobered up every­one that this is an elec­tion like no oth­er,” Wein­garten says. “That this elec­tion needs to be won by Biden to make sure that our democ­ra­cy, as imper­fect as it is, stays in place. … Yes, it’s aspi­ra­tional about how we need to do bet­ter. But it’s also very pri­mal, about what the stakes are right now.” 

The bru­tal real­i­ties of the pan­dem­ic mean that many unions are forced to focus on their imme­di­ate needs more than on long-term ide­o­log­i­cal goals. In the Feb­ru­ary run-up to the Neva­da cau­cus, Joe Biden and the oth­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry can­di­dates bat­tled to win the endorse­ment of the pow­er­ful Culi­nary Union, which has orga­nized the state’s casi­no indus­try. (The union ulti­mate­ly did not endorse, and Bernie Sanders won the cau­cus.) Less than two months lat­er, the unem­ploy­ment rate for the union’s mem­bers was close to 100%. Geo­con­da Argüel­lo-Kline, the union’s sec­re­tary-trea­sur­er, says the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion is now framed in relent­less­ly prac­ti­cal terms: The refusal of Repub­li­cans to deal with the pan­dem­ic and the eco­nom­ic cri­sis show that only Biden can make the gov­ern­ment sup­port work­place safe­ty leg­is­la­tion, pro­tect health insur­ance and pen­sions, and fund ade­quate unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits until Las Vegas is back on its feet. 

“The gov­ern­ment real­ly has to pro­vide every­thing that the work­ers need dur­ing this pan­dem­ic,” Argüel­lo-Kline says. Her union is adapt­ing its leg­endary get-out-the-vote machine for a social­ly dis­tanced era, rely­ing on phone bank­ing, text mes­sag­ing and dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion more than door-knock­ing and ral­lies. She’s con­fi­dent that Trump will not car­ry Neva­da. “Every­body in the coun­try sees how he’s being oppres­sive to minori­ties over here. How he’s attack­ing the Lati­no com­mu­ni­ty. How he doesn’t want to have any­body in this coun­try who doesn’t look like him,” she says. “We know work­ers nev­er have an easy road.” 

Across the coun­try, unions that typ­i­cal­ly would be spend­ing the sum­mer and fall months focused on elec­tion­eer­ing are forced to bal­ance that with the work of triag­ing the needs of mem­bers fac­ing very real life-and-death sit­u­a­tions. The Retail, Whole­sale and Depart­ment Store Union rep­re­sents front-line retail work­ers who have been sub­ject­ed to wide­spread lay­offs that now appear to be per­ma­nent. It also rep­re­sents poul­try plant work­ers in the South who have con­tin­ued to work through­out the pan­dem­ic with des­per­ate short­ages of pro­tec­tive equip­ment. It is hard to tell whether the work­ing mem­bers or the unem­ployed mem­bers of the union face more dan­ger. Stu­art Appel­baum, the union’s pres­i­dent, has been a mem­ber of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee for decades, but he has nev­er dealt with an elec­tion year that com­bines such dire cir­cum­stances for work­ers with such logis­ti­cal chal­lenges to mobi­lize them to fight. 

If there is any sil­ver lin­ing, it is that the val­ue of unions is clear­er than ever before. Their pub­lic pop­u­lar­i­ty is near a 50-year high. Trump’s car­toon­ish class war lent the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­maries a strong pro-union fla­vor, and the work­place inequal­i­ty exposed by the pan­dem­ic has only sharp­ened the recog­ni­tion of the need for work­place pro­tec­tions. “We heard more talk about unions and sup­port of unions than we’ve heard in any oth­er cam­paign that I can remem­ber,” Appel­baum says. “There is more of a recog­ni­tion in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty now and in soci­ety as a whole as to the impor­tance of work­ers hav­ing a col­lec­tive voice. I remem­ber when Bill Clin­ton was first elect­ed, and I’d go to union meet­ings where peo­ple would say, ‘Is the pres­i­dent ever going to men­tion the word union?’ That’s not a ques­tion we have now.” 

That, of course, is no guar­an­tee that things will work out in unions’ favor. The right wing’s long attack on orga­nized labor has sapped some of the basic abil­i­ty of unions to exer­cise pow­er. No employ­ees have been more direct­ly sub­ject­ed to that attack than the work­ers of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment itself. The Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Gov­ern­ment Employ­ees has butted heads with the Trump admin­is­tra­tion inces­sant­ly over issues such as the lack of pay­checks dur­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down, efforts to take away col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights from hun­dreds of thou­sands of employ­ees at the Defense Depart­ment, and work­ers at fed­er­al agen­cies being forced back into the office before the pan­dem­ic is under control. 

“For us, this elec­tion isn’t about par­ty affil­i­a­tion. It’s not about the dai­ly out­rages from Twit­ter. It’s about our very liveli­hoods. It’s about our rights and our lives at work,” says Everett Kel­ley, pres­i­dent of the 700,000-member union. “The issues that our mem­bers are fac­ing are real­ly the same issues that face labor as a whole—our mem­bers just work in a sec­tor where the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has the widest lat­i­tude to imple­ment its anti-labor poli­cies. But there’s no doubt that they want to export their union-bust­ing play­book from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to the broad­er pub­lic and pri­vate sectors.” 

All of the mon­ey, email blasts and vir­tu­al get­ting-out-the-vote that unions are engaged in on behalf of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty will, if suc­cess­ful, result in mil­lions of mail-in bal­lots. And all of it will be worth­less if those bal­lots are not deliv­ered and count­ed prop­er­ly. Sav­ing the post office—and, who knows, per­haps democ­ra­cy itself—is a job that has fall­en in the lap of the labor move­ment. Unions have been key play­ers in pub­li­ciz­ing the threat to the postal ser­vice. They have ral­lied polit­i­cal sup­port behind postal work­ers and the pop­u­lar insti­tu­tion as a whole. What may have been seen as just anoth­er under­fund­ed gov­ern­ment agency a few years ago is now an avatar of every­thing wrong with Trumpism.

The U.S. Postal Ser­vice is, like many oth­er insti­tu­tions, fac­ing a pan­dem­ic-induced loss of rev­enue. It is also the tar­get of the Repub­li­can Party’s long-term desire to pri­va­tize mail deliv­ery and allow cor­po­ra­tions to take over its oper­a­tions. Add to that the president’s appar­ent desire to sab­o­tage the postal ser­vice before the elec­tion to pre­vent mail-in bal­lots from being count­ed, and sud­den­ly, the hum­ble post office finds itself at the cen­ter of a nation’s sense that the entire gov­ern­ment may be tee­ter­ing on the edge of irre­triev­able corruption. 

“Pri­va­ti­za­tion usu­al­ly means three things. It means high­er prices for the con­sumer, less ser­vices, and low­er wages and ben­e­fits for the work­ers,” says Mark Dimond­stein, head of the 200,000-member Amer­i­can Postal Work­ers Union. “This is cer­tain­ly the fork in the road of whether we’re going to have a pub­lic insti­tu­tion that belongs to every­body, serves every­body and is the source of good, liv­ing-wage union jobs—or a pri­va­tized, bro­ken-up gig econ­o­my postal service.”

With tens of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans unem­ployed, a dead­ly dis­ease rag­ing and an incum­bent pres­i­dent who appears not to care very much about either cri­sis, unions and their allies find them­selves pushed into a famil­iar cor­ner: Fight like hell for the less-than-ide­al Demo­c­rat—main­ly because there is no alter­na­tive. Joe Biden is an imper­fect ally. His record is busi­ness-friend­ly, and his labor plat­form, though strong in the­o­ry, is not as aggres­sive as those of some of his pri­ma­ry rivals. Labor move­ment vet­er­ans remem­ber 2008 well, when the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion swept in with promise but failed to deliv­er on the Employ­ee Free Choice Act, which would have enabled “card check” orga­niz­ing (a method of form­ing a union with a sim­ple major­i­ty vote) and was labor’s main (rel­a­tive­ly mod­est) wish. Biden is sell­ing him­self as Obama’s suc­ces­sor. It is up to the labor move­ment to ensure that a Biden admin­is­tra­tion does not take them for granted.

“We have to look at a Biden vic­to­ry not as an end to our work, but a begin­ning,” Dimond­stein says. “The his­to­ry of this coun­try is, it’s always been the peo­ple and the move­ment, includ­ing the work­ing class move­ment, that have cre­at­ed change in Con­gress. Not the oppo­site way.”

That, in fact, is the task that the labor move­ment—shrunk­en, bat­tered and divid­ed though it is—should be pour­ing most of its ener­gy into, even now. Union den­si­ty in Amer­i­ca has fall­en by half since the ear­ly 1980s. Bare­ly one in 10 work­ers are now union mem­bers. That exis­ten­tial decline must be turned around, or labor will nev­er have enough pow­er to win the eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal gains that work­ing peo­ple need. No new pres­i­dent can do this for the labor move­ment—they can only remove some bar­ri­ers to make it eas­i­er for the move­ment to do it for itself.

Biden looks strong in the polls, but there is no cer­tain­ty about what lies ahead. Few union lead­ers want to engage seri­ous­ly with the ques­tion of what hap­pens if Trump wins. The answer is always some vari­a­tion of “Just keep fight­ing.” But anoth­er four years of Trump would be grim, and sur­viv­ing it would require a fero­cious turn toward rad­i­cal­ism. After 2016, some fac­tions of the union world toyed with the the­o­ry that the way to meet the moment was to cater to the minor­i­ty of “white work­ing class” union mem­bers who felt left behind and embraced Trump. That approach was always flawed—Trump’s base is the upper, not low­er class—and sub­se­quent events have ren­dered it a moot point. The labor move­ment has loud­ly allied itself with Black Lives Mat­ter and pledged to join the fight for social jus­tice. Liv­ing up to that pledge means mak­ing a choice to oppose Trump. If he is reelect­ed, orga­nized labor should expect to be one of many tar­gets of his vindictiveness.

All of which points to the fact that nei­ther elec­tion out­come will mean auto­mat­ic sal­va­tion for work­ing peo­ple. The past 40 years of his­to­ry demon­strate that. Con­trol of the White House has gone back and forth, but through it all, the rich have got­ten rich­er, the wages of work­ing peo­ple have stag­nat­ed, union den­si­ty has declined and labor law has remained bro­ken. The worst-case sce­nario for the labor move­ment is to see more of the same.

“I don’t real­ly look to the Democ­rats for lead­er­ship; I look to the labor move­ment,” says Sara Nel­son, the head of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants and one of labor’s most promi­nent pro­gres­sive voic­es. “And we have the pow­er to change this right now if we choose to do so. That pow­er is not an appendage of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. It’s our labor. It’s our sol­i­dar­i­ty,” she says. “As long as we out­source our pow­er to politi­cians, we are nev­er, ever going to get what work­ing peo­ple need.”

The views expressed above are the authors’ own. As a 501©3 non­prof­it, In These Times does not sup­port or oppose can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.


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